CHAMBLEE, Ga. — Republicans in the conservative Atlanta suburbs and across the country were elated Wednesday after their party beat back Democrats in a competitive special election, avoiding a loss that could have damaged President Trump’s hopes of enacting his agenda.
But the celebration of Republican Karen Handel’s victory in Georgia’s Sixth congressional district may be brief.
Trump’s priorities remain largely stalled on Capitol Hill and Tuesday’s result, due to a unique set of circumstances, provides only a faint road map to either party as they strategize for next year’s midterm elections. By some measures, the Georgia race only deepened the uncertainty around the choices facing both Republicans and the Democrats going forward.
“I’m encouraged,” said Rep. Tom MacArthur (R-N.J.), a moderate who faces a tough reelection race against a marquee Democratic recruit. “Of course, it’s a single election in a single district, so you can’t read too much into it, in either direction.”
Handel beat Ossoff by roughly four percentage points, or almost 11,000 votes, in what became the most expensive House race in history. The margin was surprisingly tight, given the fact the district has only elected Republicans to the House since 1978.
“I’m proud of how close we came,” Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee executive director Dan Sena said on a post-election call with consultants, according to a listener who requested anonymity in order to discuss what was said. “Remember, folks: there are 71 districts that perform better than Georgia Six.”
What cannot be replicated next year are the sheer amounts of resources and organization that poured into a single contest from all sides, bringing the total cost of the race to more than $50 million.
Democratic candidate Jon Ossoff, a 30-year-old former congressional aide, also carried personal liabilities as a candidate, including a thin resume and the fact that he does not live in the district he sought to represent.
Democrats could still find themselves with an edge in the midterms, depending in large measure on how Trump — historically unpopular for a president so early in his tenure — performs in the next year-and-a-half.
But in their disappointment at the outcome of a race into which they had placed so much of the party’s resources and its hopes, Democrats must confront a number of questions.
Ideological fractures remain in their party, with recriminations still flying over Hillary Clinton’s unexpected loss in last year’s presidential election. One choice facing the party is whether to embrace the hard line advocated by its ardent liberal base, or to take a more conciliatory and moderate stance as Ossoff did.
Another question is whether Democrats have the right leadership for the battle ahead. Handel and outside groups working on her behalf resurrected a well-worn Republican strategy of tying opponents to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), a symbol on the right of out-of-touch liberal values.
With yet another example of Republicans successfully using Pelosi as a political foil, some Democrats wondered Wednesday if it is approaching time for the 77-year-old leader and her deputies to step aside. The question tends to divide members of the House Democratic Caucus into two groups: the majority that hail from liberal districts and are loyal to Pelosi, and the minority in moderate or GOP-leaning areas that see her as a liability.
Rep. Seth Moulton (D-Mass.), 38, one of the most outspoken critics of the caucus’s leadership, said Wednesday the party needs “a new generation of leadership — one focused on the future.”
Rep. Kathleen Rice (D-N.Y.), 52, expressed similar views on Twitter, and in an interview with CNN, where she said: “It’s time for Nancy Pelosi to go, and the entire leadership team.”
For Republicans, the biggest quandary is how closely to tie their fortunes to an unpopular president and his freewheeling populism,
Observers point to Virginia’s gubernatorial primary this month, where establishment favorite Edward J. Gillespie triumphed over a Trump-aligned candidate, though narrowly, as evidence the Trump model does not guarantee victory.
In another special election Tuesday night, a deep-red South Carolina House district elected Ralph Norman, a conservative businessman who has complimented Trump but did not try to emulate his style on the campaign trail. And Handel, herself an establishment Republican, tread cautiously in associating herself with Trump.
In her victory speech on Tuesday night, Handel thanked “the president of the United States” along with Vice President Mike Pence for their support. She did not mention Trump by name.
Some of Trump’s allies had a strong message for Republicans on Wednesday: Resist the notion you’re in danger of losing power, redouble efforts to advance the party’s agenda and do more, not less, to embrace the president.
“If they’ve gotten advice to not mention him, that’s bad advice,” Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.) said in an interview.
“The president is not an ideologue. He’s a pragmatist. He’s trying to get people shoulder to shoulder and execute on the plan,” Perdue said. “Too many people in the Washington establishment are looking through a traditional lens.”
Trump cheered Tuesday night’s victories on Twitter. “Well, the Special Elections are over and those that want to MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN are 5 and O!” he wrote. “All the Fake News, all the money spent = 0.”
The GOP victory in Georgia came at a critical moment. Senate Republicans are preparing to unveil their sweeping rewrite of U.S. health-care laws, even as rank-and-file members complain about the secrecy of the process and express concerns about aspects of the plan. Some of those members are already worrying privately about the political fallout they might face when voters lose coverage or face higher premiums under the new system.
Nodding to congressional Republicans’ effort to revise the Affordable Care Act, she suggested it was time to move toward concluding that work. “We need to finish the drill on health care,” Handel said.
But health-care is far from the only debate with potential pitfalls for Republican incumbents. Tax reform — a way to achieve the rate cuts Handel promised voters — is in limbo on Capitol Hill. And the investigation by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III into Russian interference in the 2016 election and whether Trump tried to obstruct justice is a variable that keeps Republicans on edge.
MacArthur, who has worked closely with Trump on health care in recent months and confronted waves of voter anger at town-hall meetings, is now facing a challenge from Democrat Andy Kim, a former Obama administration national security staffer who launched his campaign this week.
The southern New Jersey district has been a hotbed of Democratic activity in the past six months, and voters’ heated opposition to MacArthur at public events has become fodder for cable news.
Shrugging off those clashes, MacArthur said the tide had not turned against him back home. “It’s a loud, angry minority that has an agenda that doesn’t click with my district. I believe that,” he said.
Even in the wake of Ossoff’s loss, some Democrats said the fact he was competitive in Atlanta’s Republican suburbs could be a positive sign for next year, when they must win 24 GOP-held seats to claim a majority of seats in the House.
“All of these special elections are a symbolic warning to Republicans, should things stay the way they are,” Democratic strategist Robert Shrum said. “Presidents always have trouble in midterm elections when they’ve just been elected, and Trump has tremendous trouble with college-educated, suburban voters.”
Viebeck and Tumulty reported from Washington.